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Friday, December 9, 2011

Euro 2012: Sweden hope to prolong tournament hex on England

England enjoyed a first victory over Sweden for 43 years when Fabio Capello's experimental team triumphed in a low-key friendly at Wembley last month but not until they are defeated in official competition, and it has never happened before, can the nation claim a hex has been lifted.

Erik Hamren's team secured their place at next summer's tournament courtesy of a tumultuous climax to their qualifying campaign, a 3-2 win over Holland that ensured they qualified as best runners-up and denied the World Cup finalists a 100% record in Group E in the process. Sweden collected 24 points from their 10 fixtures, just three fewer than Bert van Marwijk's side, and registered an impressive 31 goals along the way.

Sweden's leading goalscorer in qualification was the great enigma, to English audiences at least, that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Milan forward's five goals in eight appearances may have justified Hamren's decision to appoint him captain yet the Sweden coach spent much of the campaign defending Ibrahimovic's leading role in the side. Sweden won 55% of their European Championship qualifiers with the former Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale and Barcelona forward in the side, 100% without. Perhaps he will finally show England what compelled Pep Guardiola to spend £57m, plus Samuel Eto'o, to bring him to Barcelona when the countries meet in Kiev next summer.

Ibrahimovic tends to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1 formation for Sweden with the coveted Rasmus Elm and the former late-flowering Bolton Wanderers centre-forward Johan Elmander in support. Sebastian Larsson who along with Kim Kallstrom was an ever-present in the qualifying campaign and delivered three goals, is another recognisable threat to England and an influential presence in Hamren's side.

Since securing qualification against the Dutch Sweden have lost two successive friendlies, at Wembley and a 2-0 loss to Denmark four days earlier. At the age of 34 Olof Mellberg, formerly of Aston Villa and now of Olympiakos, still features in defence with Daniel Majstorovic and Mikael Lustig also regular components of a back line that conceded only 11 times in qualifying.

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